Image: Dog Lying in the Snow, Franz Marc, 1911
Neil was an hour late because of his hair—at least that was what Helena concluded after ducking into the car and giving him a single glance. Neil’s hair usually reminded her of the coarse beaver pelts at Science World, where, on annual fieldtrips, she had dutifully stroked them and compared them with the bear and moose hides. It now hung in thick pieces around his dry face, like ancient tree roots over parched earth. Helena imagined his flaking mouth pressed against her lips, which she had managed not to shred for two weeks.
Neil didn’t notice her shudder.
Devon has perfect lips. Helena stared out the window at the road and sky flowing past as smooth and black as his hair. Their mutuals had placed Devon on liquor duty to ensure he would turn up tonight, so it was with raised expectations that she had finally cut the tags off the red wool coat.
Half an hour out of her neighbourhood, the road widened as old-growth oaks and ornamental cherry trees arched overhead. Neil stopped arguing over fuel efficiency and sped up.
The car struck something large, thrusting the pair against their seatbelts and Helena out of her reverie, and stopped. Neil lowered his hands as if they were injured. She peered out: A black expanse lay ahead and stretched behind them, enclosed by dark groves to the sides. Dots of yellow light wafting from old sodium lampposts standing polite distances apart illuminated nothing. She sank back and ran a trembling thumb over her lips.
They continued down the road.
“What was that?” She asked, two blocks later, resenting being the first to speak.
“I don’t know.” Neil paused. “Probably nothing.”
“Nothing? That was too big for a rock, wasn’t it? Or a speed bump?”
“Ah.” His voice changed almost imperceptibly. “I think it was a dog.”
“Shouldn’t we stop then?”
“Everything’s all right. I think I saw it run off into the trees.” The muscles around Neil’s jaws contracted. “It’s gone now.”
“Are you sure? Shouldn’t you pull over to make sure?”
“If it were really hurt, it wouldn’t have been able to run away. My car probably took more damage than it did.”
“He might’ve just limped off into the trees to die.” In the confined space, Helena’s voice rose to a pitch that hurt her ears. “You should pull over. Why won’t you pull over?”
“Look, there’s no point turning back now. It was a big dog. Anyway, I wasn’t going that fast.”
“You were going fast.”
Helena stared past her reflection in the glass, toward blood-matted fur. A dog’s pale tongue. Sharp, yellow teeth. She wondered if the impact left blood on the asphalt, on Neil’s precious car. Her nails found a rough patch at the corner of her mouth. The smell of rust tinged the air as she dropped tiny, soft slivers of skin into the folds of her coat.
They identified the house before seeing its number—the only mansion in the heritage Vancouver neighbourhood with light and sound piercing through its blinds and skylights. Devon, slumped against a leather couch in the first room, gave Helena a feeble smile and wave. She headed for him, seeing only the rosy glow that the coat was casting onto her face.
Moving bodies in the house generated enough heat to strip excess moisture from Neil’s hair, returning it to its feral state. Helena left him behind to travel through the other rooms. In each a circle formed around Devon; everyone urged him to join their card and/or drinking games, some tried to draw him away for a one-on-one. Devon kept Helena at his side, and only once did his hand slide up to the underwire of her bra and back down to her waist, as if surveying the terrain. So gentle, even tentative, a touch. She blinked away the stinging in her nose and eyes. When they returned to the front room, Neil snarled a goodbye to Devon and left without looking at Helena.
Helena saved all the party photos that included herself and cropped or blurred out Neil from them. Her eyes and Devon’s glowed golden-red in every picture—she corrected these and tested filters on their faces in search of a shade that flattered both skin tones without turning her coat orange or pink. The coat was gone—Helena tried not to think of the thief, the imposter, who wore it now—but it’d helped her get closer to Devon. She stopped seeing Neil.
Devon brought him up first, while sitting at a bus shelter with Helena. They had missed the last bus of the day. “Weren’t you two dating? You should bring him along sometime.”
A tremor travelled up through Helena’s core. Devon didn’t seem to notice, though her shoulder was pressed into his chest.
“We weren’t. I only invited him to that party as a friend. Are you seriously saying you want him around when we go out?”
Devon’s smile was gentle. “No, we’re good together. I just wondered why you brought him. Didn’t look like he enjoyed himself.”
In a rush of words she described the incident on the road.
“That’s the only reason you’ve dropped him?” He laughed. “Poor Neil.”
“The only reason?” Her hand drifted up to a hardened patch of skin on her bottom lip. Not yet a scab. “He hit a dog and then wouldn’t stop the car!”
“Calm down.” As he laughed again, Helena stared. Under the streetlight, Devon’s teeth glistened yellow against his perfect lips. “It was just a dog.”
Monica Wang has fiction in GHLL, Electric Literature, The Temz Review, and Midway Journal, among other publications. She spent childhood in Taichung, Taiwan, and Vancouver, Canada, and now writes in Germany.